A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ve heard a few people moan about Ian McEwan lately, and I’ve been struggling to fathom why. The most outrageous claim so far has been that On Chesil Beach “wasn’t long enough” to deserve the Booker. Now, really. The Prince, A Room of One’s Own and The Great Gatsby are all relatively short works, but no one would argue that their significance is diminished by their page count. McEwan’s latest offering may not have been good enough to win the Booker – by all accounts, there were at least two other books which were better – but it certainly provided a welcome antidote to all those bloated novels out there. There is as much skill, if not more, to writing an excellent novella as there is to writing an opus pushing 900 pages.
Incredibly, McEwan has proved that he can do both. He is a modern master of the slim volume (The Cement Garden remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest works of a then-debut author) and longer, virtuosic novels that merge complexity and style (Atonement). On Chesil Beach is an excellent example of the former.
As in Atonement, the novella hinges on the power of a single word or action to change – or destroy – an entire life. It is 1962, and talented violinist Florence has finally married earnest history student Edward. Having overcome the social gap that divides their families (her father is a wealthy businessman and Oxford academic; his father struggles to make ends meet while caring for his brain-damaged mother), the couple embark on their honeymoon at a seaside hotel. But one thing stands between them and their longed-for future of wedded bliss: the wedding night. As Edward grows increasingly numbed by a terror of performance failure, Florence harbours a deeper dread of the sexual act itself. What happens over the course of a single evening will affect both characters in ways they would never have predicted.
I finished reading On Chesil Beach in a day (travelling from Brussels to Ghent, to be precise), but I continued to think about it for weeks. If one of the aims of literature is to create such lingering impressions, then the book’s modest length is in no way an obstacle to its impact. There’s nothing like a slim hardcover to tuck into your pocket on a train journey, and you could do far worse than to pack this one along next time.
On Chesil Beach; Ian McEwan, Knopf 2007 166 pp. ISBN 978-0-676-97881-0